October 20, 2019 – 5:23 am


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Most directors take their entire career to finally break the mold of their signature style. Perhaps in a moment of unconscious enlightenment, Cambodia’s master documentarian, Rithy Panh, decided to break his yet-to-be-defined mold at the beginning of his career. By Philip Cheah.

“I arrived in France in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. I didn’t want to go to France. I was 16 and I had to leave with one sister older than me. My parents died in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The memory of Cambodia was broken because of the war. I had to go, and I wanted to give others the opportunity of speaking, of expressing their thoughts, their feelings, their memories. I tried many things and finally chose the cinema. The development of cinema depends on the history and context of each country. In Cambodia, it is a sort of way of resisting; we resist because we have nothing.”
– Rithy Panh

Most directors take their entire career to finally break the mold of their signature style. Perhaps in a moment of unconscious enlightenment, Cambodia’s master documentarian, Rithy Panh, decided to break his yet-to-be-defined mold at the beginning of his career. And in an even more unpredictable manner, he chose a Malaysian novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (No Harvest But A Thorn, 1966), by Shahnon Ahmad to adapt into his fictional debut feature, Rice People (1994).

To further add to the surprise of adapting a non-native work, the book had already been adapted into a Malaysian feature, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, by Jamil Sulong in 1983. But Panh captured the spirit of Shahnon Ahmad in another way. While the film portrays the low-key lives of the rural poor battling the cyclical whims of nature, Panh understood Ahmad’s political motivation for depicting the suffering of people. Rice People might show the oppression of nature’s whims but it also shows man-made oppression. In a dream sequence, Panh shows the village being burnt by the Khmer Rouge. This film therefore foreshadows Panh’s continuing preoccupation in his future films.

Looking back on events in Cambodia then, Rice People was incredibly strategic. Not many remember that while Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979 (and began their occupation of Cambodia for a decade), remnants of the Khmer Rouge were still present. Rice People was shot 30 miles from Phnom Penh in the village of Kamreang under constant guard from Khmer Rouge guerrillas. It may still have been dangerous at the time to launch a straight-ahead criticism of the Khmer Rouge era.

Instead, Panh lays down the groundwork of his memory of the land and its people. As he said: “Rice People is a journey in the heart of Cambodian culture. Men and the paddy fields are one. Man cultivates earth and vice-versa. The dramatic framework of the film is the ancestral cycle of rice cultivation which regulates life with slowdowns and changes, loudly livening up paddy fields and then allowing us to hear the silence of nature…” It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “suffering in silence.” As Om, mother and protaganist in the film, says: “I worked and worked. I plowed with all my strength. I sowed. I replanted, I harvested. But it’s all the same: I don’t see anything. Where’s my rice?”

Rice People, 1994.

Panh tried his hand at another fictional feature, One Evening After The War (1998), before he began his career-defining documentaries such as The Land Of Wandering Souls (2000) that referred to the Khmer Rouge genocide when cable workers accidentally uncover a killing field. But his most searing criticism and haunting memories came soon with S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) that documented the infamous Tuol Sleng prison where many went to but few emerged to tell the tale; The Burnt Theatre (2005) that reflected on the Khmer Rouge’s careful destruction of culture; and Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell (2011), that confronted the first Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted of crimes against humanity.

Kang Guek Eav aka Duch was sentenced by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to 30 years in prison but on appeal, the court revised it to life imprisonment. The documentary is a fascinating study of denial and rationalisation as forms of psychological defence mechanisms. Yet the evidence is so truly shocking that it stands as stark contrast to the urbane conversation of Duch who even breaks into recitals of French poetry.

But it’s The Missing Picture (2013) that many consider his masterpiece as well as his breakthrough work where he combined the art form of clay figurines into a vehicle for memory. “With The Missing Picture,” said Panh, “we’d shot for a year and a half already when this idea of the clay figurine, the life that comes from the earth, came to me, and I changed everything.”

“Certainly now I have more distance,” Panh told Sight & Sound magazine in 2014, “but it’s curious: with age we feel pain [all the] more. For many years I hoped that the pain would lessen, but it’s not true at all. This may be too simple, but I have the idea that I died once already, under the Khmer Rouge, and then was reborn, but with the pain, the death inside me. I have to accept it, this pain, and live with it until the end of my life - my second life.

“It comes like a wave sometimes. I put in the film three times this big wave that can swallow you. You try to stand up and continue because it’s something you have to do: to transmit, not the horror, but the dignity and humanity of the people who died. Say one of your friends is near death and he asks you, ‘Please, if you see my family, tell them I love them.’ You have to transmit this, because you’re a survivor - and not because you’re stronger, but because the man who died helped you to survive. That’s why we have to transmit, to remember all those people.

The Missing Picture, 2013.

“That’s what I try to do, but it’s also important to me to learn every day to become simply a film director, not a film director of the Khmer Rouge genocide. I’m not a specialist; I want to be a film director - because it would mean I’m still alive. And because an artist brings more than testimony: he brings imagination, creation, the idea how to fight against totalitarianism. That’s an artist. And I made the film because I want this story to belong to everyone. It’s my story, I have to film it, but what happened in Cambodia happened everywhere.”

He added, “but you know there’s no reality in cinema, no truth in cinema. People can call it ‘cinema of reality’, ‘true cinema’, but there’s no truth in the image. In the beginning when I started watching and making films, I believed cinema could capture reality - when I was younger, 30 years ago [he laughs blackly]… And I spent a lot of time trying to find the truth in the image. Thirty years later, I’ll just say there’s no truth in cinema. But what you feel - cinema can bring you on the road, put you on the very long journey to truth. It’s a lot. The truth is what you feel after watching the film, not in the image itself.”

In Graves Without A Name (2018), Panh approaches his own family history mourning the unmarked graves of his family. He extends his narrative to other survivors but their testimonies also speak of the current sense of defeat against an unchanging present.

But Panh’s insurance for the future is not only his cinema but his co-founding of the Bophana Audio-Visual Centre in Phnom Penh (with Ieu Pannakar) in 2006. Not only film, but music, photographs and TV programmes are archived in an effort to give the future a sense of its origins.

As Panh told the Meniscus website in 2014: “Before when I was young, maybe there were 700 traditional songs. Now if you work hard, you can find maybe 200. [We have] lost a lot, so we have to move. We have to train young people. We have to train them to record, to make film and to put it on free access. Bophana is a place that you can watch these free six days a week… It’s a way to share knowledge, to share access to historic memory.” That sharing has resulted in numerous short films produced by Bophana and supervised by Panh. Bophana’s Executive Director, Sopheap Chea, will present five short films from the Centre’s workshops for this event.

Panh’s act of farming has reaped its harvest in other ways. Organisations such as Meta House, a new media art center opened in 2007 as a screening venue as well as filmmaking workshop. Younger filmmakers such as Davy Chou emerged with a strong documentary debut, Golden Slumbers (2012), about the lost generation of the Cambodian film industry. Stimulated by the positive response, Chou formed Anti-Archive in 2014, an independent production company that his next feature, Diamond Island (2016), came under. The film looks at the new rich in Phnom Penh. Anti-Archive’s co-founder, Kavich Neang, also entered the film festivals successfully with Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019), a documentary about the demolition of the iconic White Building and the emotional eviction of the artist survivors of the Khmer Rouge era who were housed there after 1979, when the war ended.

Meanwhile, other infrastructural organisations were set up by Bophana - the Cambodian Film Commission in 2009 and the Cambodian Int’l Film Festival in 2010. Till today, Bophana still discovers new filmmakers in workshops that Panh supervises. The work of remembering is never truly over…

Note: This essay was first published in Showcase Cinema, Focus on Cambodia, Griffith Film School, Australia. August 2019.

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